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(Even More) Flexible Nurse Schedules, the New Norm?

Published On: 
Written by:
Mary Flenner

What Is Flexible Scheduling in Nursing?

Workplaces everywhere have been shifting to more progressive and flexible styles to allow for better work-life balance. But is the same true for nursing? Can a flexible scheduling system work successfully in a healthcare setting? 

COVID has certainly accelerated the switch to more flexible working styles as offices convert to virtual or hybrid environments. And as many nurses face heightened levels of stress and burnout, health care systems are scrambling to adapt and offer more work-life balance to address the problem and retain nursing talent.

Why is Flexible Scheduling in Healthcare Necessary?

The reality today is there is a shortage of healthcare workers. Before the pandemic hit, the numbers were clearly heading down to the point that the Federal Government was considering options to deal with the situation. Some shortages exist in certain geographical regions (e.g., rural areas) while others are related to a certain field of study or specialty. 

This problem has been identified for decades, but it wasn’t until recently that a study pinpointed exactly what was causing the shortage:

  1. The large Baby Boomers population is retiring and will need significant healthcare resources
  2. Chronic diseases have become increasingly common in the United States
  3. Recruiting young nurses is difficult because they lack strong incentives when compared to other professions

While there is not much that be done about the aging Baby Boomer population and the increasing number of individuals retiring, we can address the strain on our hospital's nursing staff shortages through progressive recruitment strategies. 

Offering more flexible work hours for nurses is becoming necessary as the work industry moves towards less conventional hours across the board. In order to recruit and retain nurses, it’s something that healthcare leaders should consider implementing. 

Lowered Nurse Absenteeism 

When a nursing team isn’t fully staffed, the RNs who are on shift may be overwhelmed and overstressed. With fewer nurses calling off, this can also help decrease the nurse-to-patient ratio and promote more optimal patient care. 

A flexible nursing schedule often results in fewer nurses calling off, because there is more opportunity to work around their schedule and potentially swap shifts if necessary. When a nurse feels more autonomy over their schedule they are more likely to feel committed to the shifts that they are scheduled for. 


Flexible Scheduling is Important for Recruiting new Nurses

The ability to maintain a work-life balance through a more flexible nursing schedule will make your healthcare organization much more attractive to candidates. This offering could be an important factor to secure new talent. 

With the “Great Resignation” upon us and Baby Boomers retiring, employers need to rethink benefits, which go far beyond typical 401(k) and healthcare coverage. 

Data from the National Study of Employers and the National Study of the Changing Workforce, revealed that employers in health services were far more likely than employers in other industries to see flexible work as a business tool rather than a favor or a perk.

When potential hires see “flexibility” as part of the deal, they know that you're addressing employee burnout by letting them have some autonomy over their schedules. 

Organizations that offer flexible work hours are also often seen as more modern and accommodating. You also show that you can work with them and let employees have a say in when and where they want to work.

Flexible Scheduling in Action

Scheduling flexibility has been used in the healthcare industry for over 60 years but now that we are living in a post-pandemic world, maybe, now more than ever, scheduling flexibility has taken on a greater significance and is beginning to change the entire industry. 

How Can Flex Scheduling Work in Nursing? 

Here are some more common trends and tactics we see being used among healthcare providers. 

Shorter Shift Options 

Many hospitals are beginning to offer shorter nursing shifts to RNs. While a typical nursing shift has been 7 AM to 7 PM or 7 PM to 7 AM, some hospitals are offering a reduced shift beginning at 11 AM or PM. While many RN's have become accustomed to longer shifts and less days, there is a growing minority population of nurses that see this formula as less enticing than some other shorter shift options that are becoming more popular in certain hospitals or regions of the country like float pools.

Float Pools

Some hospitals and healthcare organizations are tapping into nurse float pools, which are full-time float teams to cover staffing deficiencies and nurse PTO. Having a designated float team can relieve some of the pressure and stress of understaffing as well as allow nurses to feel better about requesting and taking vacation time. 

Often when a nurse feels they are leaving their team understaffed or overwhelmed, they may avoid taking vacation time or feel ashamed that they are letting their team down. An RN float pool can help alleviate some of these stresses and provide cover where needed. 

Additional Shifts

A newer strategy to increase nurse staffing is to allow nurses to take a 4-hour shift, often in addition to their regular hours, for extra pay. Having an extra helping hand during peak hours can help to improve patient care and attention and also helps to alleviate some of the burdens from already stressed nursing teams. 

These partial shifts can put extra money into nurses' pockets as well as increase patient care. 

Allowing Nurse Managers to Have Autonomy

Another trend we think will continue to gain traction is to allow nurse leaders, managers, and directors to have more autonomy over their team’s schedules. If a supervisor is required to only staff their department with standard 12-hour shifts, they may struggle. 

When a manager feels empowered to staff for their floor’s specific needs they can optimize nursing hours as well as the care that is provided. Supervisors can schedule based on their department’s unique needs and demands. 

The Benefits of a Flexible Schedule for Nurses

Nurses’ Choice

Many nurses appreciate the option to select their hours, which allows them to work around their personal schedules. If they have a conflict or need a day off, they can trade with other nurses

For nurse managers or supervisors, it leads to easier and faster scheduling. For employees, it gives them more control over how they balance their personal and work life, with less resentment towards managers for “bad” schedules.

Higher Nurse Engagement 

While a flexible schedule may seem like a Millennial or Gen-Z trend, nurses of any age appreciate the work-life balance that comes with non-typical nursing shifts. 

When nurses are happier and have the ability to choose a schedule that fits their lifestyle, they are more engaged at work, which promotes better patient outcomes. 

As says, “Fully engaged nurses have an emotional and intellectual connection to their hospitals and care about the success of their workplace. They have fewer voluntary absences and are always looking for ways to improve the quality of their patient care.”

The Benefits of a Flexible Schedule for Patients

It’s not just the healthcare workers who benefit from flexible scheduling. The benefits for patients are also substantial. 

Less Employee Burnout and Turnover

Turnover for registered nurses has increased in recent years. These costs organizations between $4.4 to 7 million a year. Those costs are passed onto patients or lead to cost-cutting measures that affect patient care.

Fewer Call-Offs and Absences 

When nurses quit or are frequently absent, a greater workload is put on the other workers, who may become stressed or distracted. It also creates a lack of consistency in individual patient care.

Dependable Care 

An engaged employee tends to have a more positive attitude, and that carries over into how they treat co-workers as well as patients. Having autonomy over schedules can create a greater sense of collaboration among groups or teams. 


Making Flexible Scheduling a Reality

Self-scheduling is powerful, but many healthcare organizations are not able to implement these strategies at scale due to a number of difficulties, from technical expertise and operations, regulation concerns, compliance concerns, or even things like overtime considerations.

We understand it can be a complicated topic to bring to the table but hopefully, we've been able to convince you that it's one worth fighting for. The competition for the best talent in healthcare over the next decade will surely be won by those who have fought through these issues now. 

And while we may not be able to help you change your organization to adopt flexible scheduling if they're not there yet, we are always at the helm of matching our clients and how they work, with the best possible candidates and how they work. 

When we deep dive with your team on how your organization works and what your next ideal nurse manager, practitioner, APRN, leader, or lab director looks like, we also consider their experiences with scheduling, their life stage, and obligations.

Reach out to us today and let us help you bridge the gap between hard-to-fill and hired. 

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